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BOOK REVIEW

Emotion-wracked tales of race and love

By Danielle Dreilinger
Globe Correspondent / October 12, 2010

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Danielle Evans burst on the literary scene in 2007 when her short story “Virgins,’’ a gripping portrayal of black teen girls in a poor New York City suburb, appeared in the Paris Review. In “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self,’’ her first collection, young African-American and mixed-race characters confront issues of class, race, love, and family. Whether she’s observing people who work at Ruby Tuesday or Harvard students, Evans is a startlingly good sociocultural mimic.

Each story shares a particular female voice: tough, pragmatic, knowing, snappy. Take Erica, the responsible girl in “Virgins’’: “We got dressed to go to the movies because there was nothing else to do, and even though Jasmine’s pants were a little tight on me and the shirt I’d borrowed was pushing my chest up in my face, I looked all right, just maybe like I was trying too hard.’’

That toughness may start as bravado, but the characters fake it till they make it. When a college student finds out she’s pregnant, she describes the guy with a startling coldness: “Of course I had a boyfriend. We all did, they were like accessories; we kept them stored at colleges up and down the East Coast and pulled them out on formal occasions or in the event of extreme boredom or loneliness.’’

Underneath that armor lies self-blame, the idea that if you have a problem it’s your own fault. Racial injustice is a fact to be faced with a shrug and some extra kicking. Thinks Angel, the college student, “Stupid girls got pregnant, careless girls, girls who didn’t worry about their futures.’’

The tension to keep control is especially painful in the most dramatic stories because the characters are just steps away from losing it all.

In “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go,’’ a lonely Iraq vet starts babysitting his ex-girlfriend’s 5-year-old. Traumatized by the death of two Iraqi girls he couldn’t save, Georgie doesn’t correct his 5-year-old charge when she calls him “daddy.’’ It’s a small slip that leads to an avalanche.

At these heightened moments, Evans pulls off writing that makes your throat catch. Facing a fight he can’t accept is already lost, Georgie thinks: “It bothered him to think of Kenny putting his hand on her that way, Kenny who’d once assigned numbers to all the waitresses at Ruby Tuesday. . . . Kenny who’d probably never be gentle enough to notice what her body did while it was his.’’

The less dramatic tales deal with the aftermath of those terrible slips. A freak car accident atomizes a happy nuclear family in “The King of a Vast Empire’’ so that on Thanksgiving, rather than spending time together, the halfway-grown children stake out a crook who just might be the surviving member of the family their father killed. The parallels between the families are obvious.

You can feel confident in a writer still in her 20s who describes a landscape as reflected by a Mylar balloon: “Elena’sChickenArrozConPollo29.99ManicureandPedicurePawnshopKim’sMarketCallHomeCheapPhoneCards!’’

Only one story isn’t as smooth: “Snakes,’’ a first-person account of a miserable summer that Tara, a biracial girl, spends with her racist grandmother. Evans stacks the deck: The grandmother is two steps away from “Flowers in the Attic.’’ But Tara, like Georgie, reveals herself to be a dangerously wishful thinker who doesn’t hesitate to use a bad experience for personal gain. Evans dumps a cart of plot mechanics into the works two scenes before the end. And yet “Snakes’’ is intriguing, disturbing, and memorable in its fierce ambiguity.

There are books that capture our world perfectly, like a scrim over a stage. And then there are books that surprise the audience and go somewhere new, somewhere completely unpredictable. In this collection, Evans paints a picture, sometimes ripping through the fabric. One wonders where she will go next.

Danielle Dreilinger is a regular contributor to the Globe. Contact her at somervillescene@gmail.com.

BEFORE YOU SUFFOCATE YOUR OWN FOOL SELF

By Danielle Evans

Riverhead, 232 pp., $25.95